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The Reach of Late Antique Government

Bernhard Palme

The Later Roman state is often regarded as a repressive, if not “feudal,” regime. The administrative, social and economic structures of the empire are reckoned to have undergone a systemic change owing to political instability during the third century. The public administration system was fully reorganised by limiting the responsibilities of existing administrative units on supra-regional, regional and local levels, while simultaneously increasing their number. Members of most classes had to fulfil specific public tasks and services in the capacity of liturgical “part-time” officials. Depending on their status and wealth, they held an office bearing some financial risk in the context of compulsory public services, or had to pay for a substitute to hold such an office. This system greatly expanded the reach of the state and its power to mobilize resources. Structurally, however, as the paper demonstrates, it drew on forerunners in previous periods of Greco-Roman history as well as in the Ancient Near East. Through the Hellenistic and Roman imperial period, elites in the Greek city states had competed in lavish spending on public buildings, welfare, or other voluntary forms of “euergetism” with a view towards reaping social capital from these activities. Furthermore, specific tasks in Ptolemaic Egypt and the Later Roman Republic, such as the collection of taxes, were assigned to profit-oriented entrepreneurs. The central state and its governmental machinery clearly benefited from this kind of development that guaranteed a lean administration; hence these voluntary initiatives were gradually transformed into duties on a more or less regular and obligatory basis. Moreover, the vast numbers of surviving certificates for dike corvée from Roman Egypt show that – at least for a large majority of the indigenous population – compulsory services were commonplace. Seen thus, the Later Roman Empire does not appear to have enjoyed a very much ‘longer reach’ of state power than had been the case in the Hellenistic and Roman Imperial periods.

The character of state power in the (later) Greco-Roman world comes into sharper focus through the comparative approach taken in the papers of this colloquium. The Hellenistic kingdoms, the Roman, and the Later Roman Empire as ‘taxation states’ conducted or employed a typically “intensified” form of taxation in order to maintain their armies and bureaucratic machineries. All “outsourced” public duties, including tax farming, and kept them under strict control. During the first century AD, core tasks such as the collection of taxes were even reintegrated into the range of duties performed directly by the central authority and its local subdivisions. Autonomous communities and institutional households (the former Greek cities and temples) were no longer permitted to assume a quasi-official function. There was centralized control of all aspects of taxation, including the projection of tax income. For that purpose, the wealth of individual households was registered and evaluated, as documented by census returns and similar declarations on papyrus. All these forms of taxation and resource mobilization, both through direct access of state power and through outsourcing in the form of franchises and “liturgies” known from the Greco-Roman world, can also be documented for the Iron Age Near East. However, as the paper underlines, these parallels mask one significant and crucial difference: in the Ancient Near East, there is no evidence for an administrative apparatus capable of bureaucratic supervision and planning on a level to match what is to be seen in Roman Egypt, for instance. The ability of the Near Eastern states to mobilize their resources was restricted by comparison to that of the Late Roman Empire.

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The Power of the Written Word: Cross-Cultural Comparisons

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